This article first appeared in the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL, volume 38, number 04 (2015). The full text of this article in PDF format can be obtained by clicking here. For further information or to subscribe to the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL go to: http://www.equip.org/christian-research-journal/
We live in an era of increased pseudo-intimacy, in which couples seek to bypass the challenges and dedication that deep relationships—and, eventually, marriage—require. A man and a woman may engage in a friendship that involves a growing emotional intimacy but without the requisite deepening commitment, which results in warped relational patterns, disappointment, and pain. That’s one extreme. The other extreme is to plunge into a romantic, physically involved relationship that commonly leads to frustration and disappointment, and often results in profound emotional pain. A wiser, God-honoring approach involves first establishing the groundwork of friendship, which allows opportunity to explore each other’s character, commonalities, background, and spiritual commitment. This article offers a number of practical suggestions to help set proper patterns for relating, building friendship, dating, and embarking on commitment that leads to marriage. These suggestions are as follows: drop that “faux spouse” who refuses to commit to you; follow the Golden Rule of dating (treating the person you’re dating as you would want someone else to treat your future spouse); don’t date until you are at a place in life where friendship can naturally develop into a flourishing, exclusive relationship; don’t kiss until you’re engaged—or even the day of the wedding; set patterns of faithfulness and self-control that will guide you through dating and marital life; observe how the friend in whom you are interested resolves disagreements, shows forgiveness, and handles disappointments and frustrations; before engagement, address general concerns about previous sexual experience.
We live in a culture of increased pseudo-intimacy. While “enjoying” the seeming benefits of emotional attachments, unmarried couples— though friends—may be avoiding the hard work of deepened commitment, but to their own harm. A guy and a girl who aren’t officially dating may send texts to each other during the wee hours of the night, “chat” extensively over Facebook, or “hang out” with each other on their iPhones or iPads. Maybe they’ll call each other “BFFs” and watch movies or have dinner together, but they do so in a detached way—as though their sexual identity doesn’t matter.
All the while, lines of propriety get blurred, resulting in unhealthy and often unintended emotional attachments. Women tend to be more relational than men and so are more inclined toward deepening the relationship and moving toward marital commitment. Thus they are more likely to be disappointed when the friendship doesn’t “go” anywhere. This “just friends” commitment-avoiding status produces some measure of intimacy and provides some emotional benefits that typically come with marriage—but without the responsibility marriage requires. We’ve heard of married persons having “emotional affairs” (i.e., extramarital emotional attachments with the opposite sex without physical involvement), but this can happen with single persons as well.1 The other, more common extreme is to plunge into a physically involved, romantic relationship. This approach reverses the proper order of things, which should involve getting to know someone and building a friendship before engaging in physical expressions of affection that should be reserved for committed relationships.
What are some constructive ways of building healthier, more God-honoring patterns of relating? What guidance does Scripture give concerning integrity in such opposite-sex relationships? How can a Christian single honor another rather than defraud, mislead, or unwittingly raise emotional expectations? As we look at some of these questions, it would be wise to review some of the pros and cons of dating.2
DATING: DEFINITIONS AND DRAWBACKS
Throughout both Scripture and history, marriage has had three essential characteristics (cf. Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:6): permanency (“let no one separate”), exclusivity (“leave… cleave”), and conjugality (the husband and wife “shall become one flesh”).3 Dating, however, isn’t mentioned in the Bible, and we shouldn’t try to find a “biblical basis” for dating, lest we superimpose our Western categories onto Scripture. The Bible does typically refer to family-arranged marriages (e.g., Isaac and Rebekah in Gen. 24), though a couple’s mutual consent wasn’t necessarily excluded (see Song of Songs; Jacob and Rachel in Gen. 29).
In our culture, dating has traditionally been directed toward marriage, as it builds a deepened relational intensity and intimacy that can only be satisfied within marriage’s safe boundaries. When a young man and woman spend a good deal of time together—whether via technology or face-to-face—emotional attachments are deepened. But without deepened commitment and ultimately marriage, keeping such friendships detached from commitment (platonic) will lead to frustration and hurt. An occasional date to a homecoming banquet or spring prom—particularly with a group of friends—can just be a fun time for a bunch of schoolmates to hang out together and nothing more. But a consistent pairing off between a man and woman is a different situation.
While romantic love is typically the basis for marriage in our culture, non-Western marriages often involve two families engaging in investigations, negotiations, and contracts. In such settings, it’s quite clear one marries into a family—something many Westerners could stand to learn. Disney movies and novels commonly portray two autonomous individuals who “fall in love” and then forge their future together, often against all odds and objections. This pattern tends to ignore the shaping influence of the family and the family’s (often) constructive role in giving input about a prospective spouse. Furthermore, a dating culture, which is becoming increasingly sexualized, does not first focus on establishing friendship and the exploration and discovery of solid character, habits of faithfulness, the ability to resolve conflict, and other factors that contribute to stable marriages.
Dating may have the advantage of “screening” a prospective spouse before making any commitment to marriage. Yet there are disadvantages too. There is the tendency to become attached prematurely without wider exposure to the opposite sex (just think of a guy and a girl pairing up during university freshman orientation). Also, if steady dating is begun too early and continued too rigidly, the development of friendship and true partnership—which is so important to a healthy marriage—may be eclipsed by increased attention to physical expression and emotional intimacy, which can blind a person to the shortcomings and character flaws in the other. As I note below, friendship should be the building block for potential growth in romance later on, since dating relationships face the ongoing temptation of physical and emotional intimacy.
Furthermore, if entering and breaking exclusive relationships becomes a pattern during adolescence, it can be emotionally poor preparation for marriage—in addition to increasing sexual temptation. Furthermore, the dating system usually leaves all the decision making to the young person who is emotionally involved, often immature, and beset by peer pressure with little significant input from parents or church. Finally, the dating system tends to neglect the practical realities of life: sufficient education, an income-earning track record, savings, life experience, common interests, and conflict-resolution skills. As most couples in our culture won’t take the arranged-marriage approach, dating—or something approximating it—is the system they are left with. And while dating itself isn’t morally wrong, it has its pitfalls, as we have seen. A successful marriage takes work and dedication, and romance itself cannot sustain marriage over the long term. But there is a sound, more biblically faithful way of approaching the matter.
BFFS: BEST FRIENDS FIRST
A young man goes to a social gathering and looks around to find the most attractive young woman who might be open to making conversation with him. A romance develops quickly, which includes some physical involvement. Only later do they discover that they’re really not well suited, and they break off the relationship, accompanied by many hurt feelings and much awkwardness.4
Now what if the young man goes to a party and simply looks for good conversation? Let’s say he finds a young woman who can engage in substantive discussion—perhaps even in the context of a group discussion. What if these two start to discover each other’s character and interests and dreams without the pressure of moving in a romantic direction? The focus is on friendship, which provides a much better context for self-discovery and other-discovery and the opportunity to explore commonalities. This encourages objectivity and allows for the natural development of a more exclusive relationship.
The first scenario above inverts the proper order—the pursuit of romance (and possibly sex) first, followed by the pursuit of friendship. This approach often dooms relationships from the start because serious incompatibilities aren’t discovered in a natural way, and rapid physical involvement blocks healthy patterns of relating. There has been no established friendship, no opportunity to explore suitability and commonalities, no discovery about the other’s capacity to raise children in a godly manner. Indeed, physical beauty fades over time (Prov. 31:30). What’s more, beauty doesn’t pay bills, resolve disagreements, iron out misunderstandings, or raise children. This is why character and compatibility are so important. But these are more difficult to detect under the conditions of early romantic involvement and relational exclusivity; these conditions also raise expectations about physical involvement, exaggerate the other’s strengths, and bypass serious weaknesses. By itself, romance doesn’t have the staying power to ground a lifelong commitment.
Beginning with friendship and partnership offers a more secure path. Couples can get to know each other in more relaxed settings of church gatherings, Bible study, or other group contexts—not to mention church mission trips, community service projects, and occasions where neither person may look or feel optimal—occasions that reveal the nature of one’s character and patterns of faithfulness. Will the other person still be interested in you when he or she sees you at your least glamorous?
The Puritans have much to teach us here. As theologian J. I. Packer observes, “The Puritan ethic of marriage was first to look not for a partner whom you do love passionately at this moment but rather for one whom you can love steadily as your best friend for life, then to proceed with God’s help to do just that.”5 Puritan pastor Richard Baxter very sensibly advised choosing a partner who is “truly amiable.”6
Of course, romantic affection should be part of God- honoring marital relationships. The Bible is clear on this (Prov. 5:15, 19; Song of Songs). In fact, I don’t recommend marriage to one who doesn’t have that excitement about the relationship.
Some may challenge what I’ve just written. A recent article in Christianity Today—“I Didn’t Marry My Best Friend”—suggests a different approach. The author states that her husband (who is in the Army) isn’t her best friend. After all, he isn’t going to meet all of her needs. That’s why she has best friends outside of her marriage who offer deep conversation and emotional support.7 But this is a false dichotomy. Consider the following: first, it’s a lopsided, insulated marriage that has no outside friendships; second, it’s idolatrous to think that a spouse can meet all of her needs; and third, it’s idolatrous to think that friendships outside the marriage will meet all of a spouse’s needs, as God alone can meet our deepest needs. Indeed, when a person marries, he is committing himself to someone who will inevitably let him down. Paul reminds us that he had learned to be Christ- sufficient even when he was away from friends and in less-than-ideal circumstances (Phil. 4:10–13).
PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS AND REMINDERS
What concrete steps can the unmarried Christian in our culture take to create healthier patterns of relating to the opposite sex that would facilitate a deepening friendship that could lead to marital commitment?
- Drop that “faux spouse” who refuses to commit to you. Don’t play with another’s emotions in an ongoing relationship, and don’t let another play with yours. Pastor Tim Keller tells about how his wife-to-be confronted him after they had known each other for years, were fine friends, but the relationship wasn’t moving forward. She told him, “Look, I can’t take this anymore. I have been expecting to be promoted from friend to girlfriend. I know you don’t mean to be saying this, but every day you don’t choose me to be more than a friend, it feels as if I’ve been weighed and found wanting—I feel it as a rejection.” This got Tim’s attention, and two weeks later he chose to move forward.8
- Follow the Golden Rule of dating. Until you’re married, keep the following rule in mind: “I may marry a person other than the one I’m dating, and somewhere someone may be dating my future spouse; so I should treat the one I’m presently dating in the very manner I would want my future spouse to be treated.” The pure-hearted, loving person will be careful not to arouse desires in the other person that he is not prepared to meet through commitment. Restraint and care are called for in the absence of full marital commitment.
- Don’t date until you are at a place in life where friendship can naturally develop into a flourishing, exclusive relationship. This principle virtually eliminates high school and most early college dating, which tends toward sexual exploitation and experimentation. Following this advice alone will help spare one from significant emotional harm and prevent faulty patterns of relating to the opposite sex. Marriage—and thus dating—are for the serious and the mature; this is not a game. While seeking a spouse, more than trying to find the “right person,” work to become the right person.
- Don’t kiss until you’re engaged—or even the day of the wedding. Save your kisses for the one you’ll marry—a marvelous picture of dedication to purity. In general, when you show physical restraint, this will help you develop, maintain, and preserve your significant friendship while keeping your head clear about whether a person of interest is actually a mutually good fit. As friendship progresses, unclouded by expressions of physical desire, you will see the person for who he or she is. When you ultimately get engaged, have declared your love, and kissed, you will have gathered a treasure trove of mutual trust and respect that you will enjoy and call upon throughout your marriage. If this standard and the one in the previous point sound too idealistic, I urge you not to dismiss them automatically. If you have gone past these standards in your own experience, you can start again by the Lord’s grace. Determine from this day forward that you will prize purity, honor your future spouse, and protect your eventual marriage.
- Set patterns of faithfulness and self-control that will guide you through dating and marital life. C. S. Lewis noted a certain cultural irony: while the drive for food or sleep taken to excess—gluttony and sloth—are commonly looked down on in our society, trying to fulfill one’s sex drive is frequently celebrated. Yet relationships without self-control will give way to compromises and regret—first in the dating relationship and then in marriage. Going too far physically before marriage only increases the likelihood of adulterous compromise during marriage.
During engagement, the desire for sexual release is strong. So it makes sense to keep the length of the engagement as short as possible—as long as it takes feasibly to plan for a meaningful wedding celebration. It is wise for engaged couples to concentrate on knowing one another socially, intellectually, and spiritually—establishing oneness at these more basic levels. Discipline is necessary. Physical expression of affection should be simple and occasional rather than prolonged and often. Otherwise an engagement, particularly a longer engagement, can lead to temptation, frustration, and friction. Gratification delayed in the present builds toward ever more wonderful fulfillment and the beginning of marriage on a solid foundation with no regrets.
- Cultivate habits of mental purity. Adultery begins in the mind, and Christ calls us to be sexually pure in mind as well as body. Mental infidelity erodes relationships by objectifying others made in the divine image, and it harms the one lusting as well. Lust lies at the heart of adultery, and Jesus commands His disciples to take concrete steps to battle this—to take severe, ruthless action to avoid lustful activity—to “pluck it out” and “cut it off” (Matt. 5:29–30). Such actions will involve honest accountability to others, directing one’s mind to what is honorable, just, pure, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8), and protecting oneself from exposure to pornography (e.g., computer filters). Not only should the earnest Christian cry to God for deliverance when tempted (1 Cor. 10:13) but he should make no provision to feed sexual temptation (Rom. 13:14). As Billy Graham once said, “Win the battle against sex and you win the battle of your life. Lose it, then you lose the battle of your life.”
Now, many Christians engage in self-flagellation and wallow in guilt because impure thoughts come flitting through their mind. But Scripture emphasizes the wrongness of choosing to dwell on those thoughts, of choosing to lust after another, rather than vigilantly redirecting those thoughts. The disciple of Christ would avoid much unnecessary guilt if he asked, “How should I respond to these flitting thoughts? Will I dwell on them, or fill my mind with something else?” Martin Luther purportedly said that you can’t keep birds from flying around your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair!
- Observe how the friend in whom you’re interested resolves disagreements, shows forgiveness, and handles disappointments and frustrations. Proverbs 22:24–25 urges, “Do not associate with a man given to anger, or go with a hot-tempered man, or you will learn his ways and find a snare for yourself.” Is this person slow to anger? Does he have a good track record of working through disagreements, asking for forgiveness, displaying humility and teachability? If the person storms out of a room in frustration or carries bitterness in his heart, he will become all the more explosive in marriage.
- Before engagement, address general concerns about previous sexual experience. Since openness is necessary for healthy marital relationships, those with previous sexual experience should ask two questions: Would my friend want to marry me if she knew of my past? And, Could I live openly with a sense of security and integrity if she did not know? To be sure of the answer to the first question, one must ask frankly, “Do you want to know about my past? Would it make any difference?” And if the other person seems to want such information (which is rightfully hers, in any event), I would recommend giving only the most generalized facts: “Before I knew you, I sinned by having sexual relationships with another. I am deeply sorry and hope you will forgive me.” Further detail is probably not wise, but if it is requested, go only as far as is absolutely necessary to satisfy the loved one that all is past, that nothing of the former relationship lingers. If the person definitely does not want to know, then it would be unwise to speak of the matter further. Sexual sins less than premarital sex or gross promiscuity should be left undisclosed unless specifically requested. As to the second question, the answer is perhaps implicit: if the person thinks there is nothing that needs to be raised beyond what she wants—or needs—to know, and if he has dealt with this matter before God in good conscience, then he can let it go, entrusting it to the Lord.
God’s grace can do much to heal and restore the sexually damaged and broken. If a person forgives a future spouse for such wrongs, then these wrongs should be left behind and not brought into the marriage as a weapon or tool of manipulation. When we forgive, we are expressing that we no longer hold that wrong against another person (cf. Ps. 103:12). When forgiving, our yes should be yes and our no, no (Matt. 5:37). Richard Baxter advises married couples not to stir up what is evil but what is the best in each other, and this includes not bringing up past, presumably forgiven sins and failings: “There is some uncleanness in the best on earth; yet if you will be daily stirring in the filth, no wonder if you have the annoyance; and for that you may thank yourselves.”9
In conclusion, we’ve seen the pitfalls of both platonic and romantic relationships. However, laying a foundation of friendship allows a couple to proceed toward marriage in a more natural, God-honoring way.
Paul Copan is author or editor of thirty books—including An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom (IVP Academic, 2014)—and is professor and Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Florida.
- Thanks to Melanie Cogdill, managing editor of the Christian Research Journal, for her discussion of this topic.
- Material from this article is from Part VII in Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), especially chapter 17.
- See Robert George et al., What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter, 2012).
- On this, see Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011).
- J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 25.
- Cited in Tim Beougher, “The Puritan View of Marriage,” Trinity Journal 10, 2 (Fall 1989): 158.
- Kate Shellnut, “I Didn’t Marry My Best Friend,” Christianity Today, September 15, 2014. Available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/september/i-didnt-marry-my-best-friend.html.
- Keller and Keller, Meaning of Marriage, 216; “faux spouse” is their term.
- Cited in Beougher, “Puritan View,” 158.